upekkha

Bodhipaksa is teaching in Australia, March 2017!

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Rainbow at Vijayaloka

Rainbow at Vijayaloka

Bodhipaksa is teaching in Australia in 2017! He’s been invited by the Sydney Buddhist Centre to lead a week-long retreat on lovingkindness and the other three “divine abidings” at Vijayaloka Buddhist Retreat Centre, at Minto, just one hour from the centre of Sydney, on a plot of largely pristine bushland above the upper reaches of the Georges River.

This week-long retreat is an opportunity to enjoy my innovative and even provocative take on the “divine abidings” or Brahma Viharas — four inspiring and transformative practices that progressively expand our sphere of concern to include all beings.

The divine abidings are a path to insight, blending compassion and wisdom.

On this retreat we will delve progressively deeper into the divine abidings, developing an unselfish concern as deep as the world itself: a love that leads ourselves and others toward awakening.

These teachings have grown out of over 30 years of practicing these meditations, and of helping literally thousands of people to explore them. The retreat is suitable for people who already have some meditation experience. It’s not an event for complete beginners.

  • Metta is kindness, or an empathic recognition that just as we desire happiness, other beings desire happiness; therefore we wish for the wellbeing of others.
  • Karuna, or compassion, is the desire that beings be free from suffering so that they may experience happiness.
  • Mudita, or joyful appreciation, is far more than “being happy because others are happy.” It begins by recognizing that true happiness does not arise randomly, but as the result of skillful actions. Therefore we rejoice in the good we see in ourselves and the world, and encourage its development, living as much as possible from a basis of gratitude and appreciation.
  • Upekkha is often translated as equanimity, or balance. But it goes much deeper. The root meaning of upekkha is “to watch intimately.” It begins with the recognition that the deepest and truest form of happiness is the peace that arises from spiritual awakening; therefore if we truly want beings to be happy we should rejoice in and encourage the cultivation of insight in ourselves and others.

In cultivating upekkha we must look deeply into the hearts of beings and recognize their need for awakening. And we must look deeply into the nature of reality itself, so that we know what awakening is, and can help others to attain it. Upekkha, in its essence, is identical to “The Great Compassion” (Maha-Karuna) of the Mahayana, that seeks the enlightenment of all beings.

The divine abidings, ultimately, are a love as deep as life itself.

The retreat runs from Friday, 3 March until Friday, 10 March, 2017.

Click here to register for Bodhipaksa’s retreat in Australia.

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“Not being able to govern events, I govern myself.” Montaigne

montaigneI’ve been depressed a few times in my life, but only once has it ever got so bad that I felt I had to seek medication. My doctor prescribed me something—I no longer remember what—and after taking just one tablet my depression instantly lifted. This was no miracle drug; these medicines take days or even weeks to have an effect. In fact the medication had nothing to do with my recovery, and the reason I felt better so quickly was, I think, because I admitted I was helpless.

Michel de Montaigne, the famous 16th French essayist, said that although he was not able to govern external events, he was able to govern himself. This beautiful observation embodies a truth that is old, but which we often have to be reminded of anew.

We can’t control what happens to us but we can, if not control, then at least influence how we respond to it. We often think of happiness in terms of providing ourselves with an endless stream of pleasant experiences, with no unpleasantness to mar the perfection of our paradise. And yet we can never achieve such a goal. The conditions that exist in the world are far too complex for us to be able to manage. We may want to have only pleasant experiences, but the world isn’t going to cooperate with us. We’re always going to have a mixture of pleasant and unpleasant experiences

From the Buddhist point of view, the truest happiness comes from not allowing ourselves to be swayed either by the pleasant or unpleasant. This is what’s called “equanimity,” or upekkha. When pleasant experiences arise, we enjoy them, yes, but we don’t try to get more out of them than they’re able to give us. We don’t try to hold onto them, and recognize that they’re impermanent phenomena. When unpleasant experiences arise, we bear with them, knowing that they’re going to pass, not causing ourselves further pain by resisting the discomfort with thoughts like, “This shouldn’t be happening. This is terrible!” We allow all experiences to come and go.

This doesn’t mean that we become inactive and passive, simply putting up with things that can be changed: if the room is cold we can turn up the heat; if there’s injustice in the world we can campaign to right it. But there are always going to be things we can’t control.

My depression was one such thing. I didn’t know at the time what had cause the depression, and I’m not 100 percent sure I do now, but I suspect that what was keeping it in motion was that I thought I should be able to fix it. And the more I was unable to fix my depression, the more depressed I stayed. What might have been no more than a passing mood ended up being with me for weeks. In seeking held and telling my doctor that I had a problem I couldn’t control, I freed myself from thinking that I had to control or should be able to control the depression. Without the internal pressure that came from needing to be in control, my depression had nothing to feed on, and simply vanished.

In this case, “governing myself” didn’t mean “being in control of everything.” No government is ever in total control of its nation. A government is an organ of adaptation. Instead, governing myself meant taking the most appropriate action open to me, which in this case was relinquishing my belief that I should be able to control my experience. Sometimes the best use of our ability to control is surrendering the illusion that we have control.

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Best Dharma quote ever!

jkornfieldIf you can sit quietly after difficult news;

if in financial downturns you remain perfectly calm;

if you can see your neighbors travel to fantastic places without a twinge of jealousy;

if you can happily eat whatever is put on your plate;

if you can fall asleep after a day of running around without a drink or a pill;

if you can always find contentment just where you are:

you are probably a dog.

– Jack Kornfield

Thank you to Tim Brownson for sharing this, in a paraphrased form, on his blog.

The comes from Jack’s book, “A Lamp in the Darkness: Illuminating the Path Through Difficult Times.”

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Why meditation isn’t the main thing in my life

mandalaGiven that I’m a meditation teacher and the author of a good number of books and audiobooks on meditation, you might think that meditation should be the central thing in my life. But — and this is something I only just realized — it’s not.

I’ve carried around, not very consciously, the idea that meditation should be the most important, the most central, thing in my life. And I suspect that this mostly unconscious idea has led to inner conflict and resistance. Certainly, when I realized just the other day that meditation wasn’t and shouldn’t be the central thing in my life, I felt unburdened. I felt lighter, freer, and clearer. The notion that meditation should be the central thing in my life was something that had been weighing me down.

It’s not that I don’t take meditation seriously. I meditate every day. It’s just what I do. It’s part of who I am. To use a common, but useful, analogy, brushing my teeth isn’t the most important part of my life, but I make sure I do it at least twice each day.

What is the most important thing in my life? What brings me the most happiness and gives me the sense that my life is being spent in a meaningful way is seeing people grow and become happier. Having a hand in that process is deeply fulfilling. So basically helping people is the central thing in my life.

But even that’s a bit of a simplification. I have a drive to become awakened, or enlightened. Or at least I have a drive to seek a meaningful way of living that maximizes my sense of happiness and peace and that minimizes the amount of unnecessary suffering I experience. That’s my quest. And it just so happens that the Buddhist goal of spiritual awakening and the Buddhist path to awakening match up with my own goal. That’s not surprising, since the whole Buddhist path is about ending suffering and finding peace.

I sometimes talk about my quest (and always think about it) as wanting to know the mind of the Buddha. Now that might sound a little selfish, or self-centered, but there’s another factor. It turns out that if I want to maximize my happiness, minimize the amount of unnecessary suffering I experience, experience more peace, and feel that I’m living life meaningfully, then I need to help others.

I can’t exactly explain why. You can call it “interconnectedness” if you want. You can talk about it in terms of non-duality. But fundamentally, helping others to move toward awakening (whether or not they’re aware that’s where they’re headed) seems to be inseparable from my own movement toward enlightenment. This is what the Mahāyāna called mahākaruṇā, or great compassion, in which we aim to guide all beings to the happiness of awakening. I believe this is what the earlier Buddhist tradition also called upekkhā, the fourth brahmavihāra. Everyone else is going to tell you that upekkhā is “equanimity,” but the root of the word upekkhā suggests that it originally meant “to watch over closely” and its place as the pinnacle of the brahmavihāras convinces me that upekkhā and mahākaruṇā are the same thing.

There’s another way you can express all this, which is to say that the Buddha (enlightenment, awakening, living an awakened life) is at the center of my life. And if I think of my life as a maṇṇḍ ala — a symbolic arrangement of values — then the Buddha is at the center of my maṇṇḍ ala.

Ideally, I’d like everything else in my life to relate to and be supportive of the center. That’s far from being the case: I have anger and craving and any number of bad habits that represent movements away from the center. But that’s what practice is about. It helps us to “want one thing.”

Meditation is just a support — albeit a crucial one — to the goal of getting myself and all beings to awakening: my “one thing.” It can never be, never has been, and never should be the most important thing in my life, even though it’s a crucial practice.

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100 days of lovingkindness (and compassion, and joyful appreciation, and loving with insight

100 Days of LovingkindnessToday is Day 100 of Wildmind’s 100 Days of Lovingkindness.

For me it’s been a blast. Somehow I managed to keep to a schedule of having a blog post each day, which means that I’ve written enough material in the last three months to fill a 300 page book. On our first 100 day challenge I managed 35 consecutive daily posts before realizing that I couldn’t sustain the pace and slacked off to writing every five days. Somehow this time the 35 day mark came and went, and then the 50 day mark, then 75 days — and here we are. The time has flown.

I can only imagine that the energy for this writing came from the practice itself. It certainly helped that we were focusing on one set of practices, rather than having just a general theme of meditating for 100 days. When you focus on one narrow topic it forces the mind to dig deeply, and as they say, if you want to dig a well you make one deep hole, not many shallow ones.

My understanding of the practices has moved on immensely. It may be that I’ve got things entirely wrong, but I realized that mudita is not “lovingkindness meets joy” as I had thought it to be, and realized that it was actually “lovingkindness appreciating and encouraging the skillful qualities that bring happiness.” And I came to see upekkha not as equanimity, but as the vipassana equivalent of mudita: “appreciating and encouraging the qualities of insight that bring lasting peace.” It’s always deeply fulfilling to look into familiar practices and to see them in a new light — especially one that brings traditional formulas to life.

My own practice? Well, there have been so many complications and stresses in my life with family and work (I won’t bore you with the details) that my meditation practice, although regular, has not felt particularly deep. But I have noticed a greater ability to be calm in the face of major challenges, and have definitely felt more compassionate and empathetic. I seem to have much more creativity, as witnessed by all this blogging.

Reaching Day 100 seems less like an end and more like the start of something. I’m looking forward to continuing to explore these practices, and to continue my writing (perhaps these blog posts will be an actual 300 page book at some point).

I’m glad to have been practicing with others. I’ve seen much kindness, compassion, and skillful rejoicing over the last 100 days, especially from members of Wildmind’s Google+ Community. And with permission, I’d like to leave you with some of their comments:

  • Adin: These last 100 days of have gifted me with an unshakable daily sitting practice, with a deeper understanding of this fleeting self, with more love for others, and with not just an acceptance of but a soothing, wiser appreciation of impermanence. I bow in deep gratitude.
  • Matthew: I’ve found myself deepening in compassion for both myself and others. I’ve always had major issues with self compassion but lately due to the practice of Brahmaviharas, I’ve noticed myself doing extra things around the house out of compassion for what situations may arise in the future vis-a-vis my health situation.
  • Melody: I’ve gone from ‘studying’ Buddhism out of curiosity to committing to this practice as a way of my life. I am immersed in the study of the words of the Buddha. I learned that I did not know how to love myself fully. I have committed to accept myself as I am here and now with present moment awareness. Applying compassion to myself changed the me I was familiar with, now things are bright and new and changing all the time. I found ill will to be too heavy and painful to carry and dropped it. Finally…I am growing an awareness of all beings and feeling a belonging I have never known.
  • Christine: This 100 days has completely upended my thoughts, feelings, and assumptions about metta practice, and about a lot of other things, too. (In fact, upending my thoughts, feelings and assumptions seems to have become part of my practice.) I used to fight shy of metta practice; now I love it. Curious and beautiful changes are seeping into my practice and my life as a result. All this is surely due to Bodhipaksa’s daily posts, for which I am profoundly grateful.
  • The 100 days project has taken me from an occasional meditator to someone for whom meditation has become a central part of life. I’m more aware of how I interact with others and find myself genuinely desiring good things for other people. Thank you so much, Mr. B, for guiding us through this process. Your words and example have been invaluable.
  • The 100 Days of Lovingkindness introduced me to the brahma-viharas (divine abodes, four immeasurables) expanding what I initially knew of metta, the lovingkindness meditation, exponentially. In learning the other aspects of lovingkindness, I truly see now just how much of a compassionate practice this is! I learned to root for others during their suffering, and during their successes. In honoring both, I also developed a deep desire that they have clarity. In particular, I applied these lessons at the source by learning to relate well to my own suffering. In doing so there was a letting go in which I found freedom. In finding freedom, I now desire it for all others.

PS. You can see all of out 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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Knowing the mind of the Buddha

padmasambhavaA little under two years ago I was on a retreat with other members of the Triratna Buddhist Order, which I’ve been a member of since 1993. We were discussing the visualization meditation practices we were each given at the time of our ordination.

At the time of my own ordination, the practice I had requested and was formally given — the visualization of Padmasambhava — was described as being my orientation toward enlightenment. The visualized form of Padmasambhava — a red-robed figure with a trident and skull cup overflowing with the nectar of immortality — embodied my personal connection with awakening.

“Enlightenment” can be a rather abstract concept. How can we aim to attain a state if we have no feel for what it’s like to experience it? Imagine that you wanted to develop the quality of kindness, but had no examples of kind people to inspire you? Developing the quality of kindness wouldn’t be impossible, but it would be a lot harder. So it’s helpful to develop a clear and embodied sense of what an awakened being is like, so that we can resonate imaginatively and emotionally with it (which is now no longer an “it,” but a “he” or a “she”).

I started my contribution to the discussion without much enthusiasm, because my practice of the visualization of Padmasambhava had fizzled out a long time ago, and I didn’t feel good about that. When I was ordained there was a lot of stress put on doing the visualization practice regularly, and although I’d started off well, I found visualizing to be very hard. I’m actually a very visual person, but I had some kind of block regarding the practice.

100 Days of LovingkindnessActually, before my ordination, I had a very strong personal connection with Padmasambhava. I had many dreams about him, and sometimes when I looked at pictures of him I’d “hear” him speaking to me — often giving me very useful advice. (No, I’m not crazy; I’m aware this was really me speaking to myself.) I spent months sculpting his trident, which is very elaborate, and then rowed out into the middle of a loch in the Scottish Highlands and offered the trident up to the depths. My connection with Padmasambhava was a big deal for me.

Somehow the meditation practice I was given interfered with all this. Struggling with the visualization made me feel that there was a barrier to communing with Padmasambhava, and gradually that sense of connection faded away, and I stopped doing the meditation practice.

And there was a sense of shame about my lack of fidelity that came up as I talked on the retreat about how I’d ceased doing this visualization practice. But as I continued to talk about how I’d been exploring alternative approaches to awakening that were more rooted in direct experience, I realized that I had never lost my fidelity to an underlying quest, which I expressed that day as wanting to know the mind of the Buddha.

This was the quest I’d been involved in even before I encountered the Buddha. Even in my teens I knew there was an alternative, more real, and more satisfying way to experience the world. There was a different way to see, and a different way to be. And I wanted to know what that was like. I wanted to experience the world that way — whatever “that way” was.

When I encountered the Buddha’s teachings — and even more when I encountered the Mahayana Perfection of Wisdom Sutras — I was aware of being in the presence of that different way of seeing. And I wanted to know the mind of the Buddha.

Although I’d stopped visualizing Padmasambhava, knowing the mind of the Buddha was always my goal. And my connection with Padmasambhava was just one particular way to seek that goal.

Now, just as mudita is the joyful appreciation of the skillful in others, where the good in us resonates with the good in others, so I believe that upekkha can involve valuing and appreciating the insight that others have. It’s that within ourselves that seeks insight resonating with the insight in others. Upekkha involves wishing the highest possible good — the benefits of awakening — for others. And so we naturally respond with gratitude, respect, and even devotion, to those who embody awakening. And that in fact is the point of the practice of visualizing enlightened beings.

The Buddha himself (or possibly his early disciples) seems to have encouraged this way of approaching awakening, and there was a practice that they called “Buddhānusati” — reflecting on the Buddha and allowing ourselves to resonate with his qualities.

And I think that Buddhānusati can be an important part of our upekkha practice. I discussed a couple of days ago how we have to be engaged in a quest for awakening ourselves before we can really wish awakening for others. And I think that it’s helpful, if we’re on a quest for awakening, to develop a sense of a personal relationship with enlightenment.

This doesn’t necessarily have to take the form of a visualization meditation. That didn’t work out well for me, although perhaps I gave up too soon.

  • It could take the form of having pictures of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas on our walls, or on our phones or computer screensavers.
  • It can take the form of reading the Buddhist scriptures (many are available free online) and allowing ourselves to get to know the Buddha from the records that have been passed down to us. This may not be an easy thing to do, because much of the depth of the Buddha’s personality has been flattened by centuries of oral repetition. But enough of the Buddha still shines through for us to have a sense of his extraordinary personality.
  • It can take the form of having a Buddha statue on the altar we meditate in front of. Don’t have an altar? I’d suggest putting one together. It doesn’t need to be elaborate.
  • It can take the form of bowing to Buddha images. Bowing doesn’t mean subservience. It’s simply a respectful greeting. And so every time I walk into a meditation hall, I bow. This reminds me of my debt of gratitude to the Buddha.
  • It can take the form of chanting verses. This is done in every Buddhist tradition that I know of. In the Triratna Buddhist Community of which I’m a part, we have a number of texts that we commonly chant together. Some can be downloaded here, and there are various recordings here. The earliest forms of Buddhānusati seem to have involved chanting.
  • And lastly, you can do visualization practices. This doesn’t have to the done in a formal way, but can be as simple as imagining that the Buddha is sitting beside you when you’re meditating. I often do this. I don’t even necessarily “see” anything, so visualizing isn’t the right word. But just as you can know someone’s sitting beside you when you have your eyes closed, you can imagine someone sitting beside you while you’re meditating. There’s a feeling of a physical presence. And what I often do is to drop in the words “Feel the love of the Buddha.” So not only am I experiencing the Buddha sitting beside me, I feel him as a loving presence. Often this results in a feeling of warm on the skin of the side of my body that’s nearest to him.

So we seek to know the mind of the Buddha, to get close to him and to develop an appreciation and respect for awakened qualities — qualities which we ourselves are bringing into being. And in the upekkha bhavana practice we can wish that those qualities manifest in others, so that they know the peace and joy of awakening.

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Cultivate only the path to peace

BuddhaThe Buddha was a man on a mission, and very single-minded. He said over and over again that his only interest was in addressing suffering:

Both formerly and now, it is only dukkha that I describe, and the cessation of dukkha.

This word “dukkha” is often rendered as “suffering.” I have no real problem with that translation. It’s accurate. But many people have problems with the word “suffering.” As a friend and I were discussing just the other night, many people don’t recognize the suffering they experience as suffering, and so they don’t think that dukkha applies to them. Often people think of suffering as actual physical pain, or severe deprivation such as starvation, homelessness, or being in a war-zone. All those things are of course dukkha, but so are many others, some of which people might be reluctant to apply the label suffering to.

Often people don’t even see that they’re suffering; they’re blind to their pain. They so take it for granted that life is hard, or think that people and things around them are awkward and frustrating, and they don’t even give the difficulties they face a second thought.

The Buddha commented on this reluctance or blindness to dukkha:

“What others speak of as happiness,
That the noble ones say is suffering.”

We often think we’re OK, but actually we’re living at a sub-optimal level — far below our potential.

100 Days of LovingkindnessFor example, any kind of craving is dukkha, whether or not we want to recognize this. Even “pleasant” cravings like longing for a tasty treat, or longing for a new electronic toy are forms of dukkha. Look underneath the excitement of the wanting, and there’s a void that we’re trying to fill. Beneath the wanting is a want.

Anger is dukkha, even when we enjoy getting angry. Frustration is dukkha. Irritability is dukkha. Resenting someone is dukkha. Worrying what someone thinks about you is dukkha. Hoping that the traffic light will stay on green is suffering. Wishing that the driver in front of you would go a little faster is dukkha.

We actually experience dukkha dozens, perhaps hundreds, of times a day. Dukkha is not an uncommon experience that only visits us on rare occasions. It’s woven throughout our experience and often goes unnoticed or unrecognized.

So some translators render dukkha as “unsatisfactoriness,” some as “stress,” some as “unease,” some as “anguish.” The root of the word is obscure, but it may come from dus-stha “unsteady, disquieted.” There’s no word that’s quite adequate. Personally, I find “suffering” to be fine; I just have a very broad understanding of what suffering is in my life.

So the Buddha taught about suffering. He taught about the ways in which we cause ourselves suffering, and the different ways in which we suffer, often without realizing it. And he taught about the cessation of suffering. He taught how to end suffering by attaining awakening.

But what are we left with when suffering has ceased? What is the opposite of suffering?

I suspect most people would think of “happiness” as the opposite of suffering, but “happiness” isn’t quite right. Happiness is not what Buddhist practice aims at. The goal of Buddhism, which is the spiritual awakening of bodhi, isn’t really happiness. I think of it more as “peace.” Think of the goal as the opposite of “unsteady” or “disquieted” — it’s steady, at peace, settled, quieted, calm, untroubled. Happiness may accompany this peace at some times, and not at others. It’s the peace that’s fundamental.

In the Dhammapada, the Dhamma is is said to be the path to peace:

Cultivate only the path to peace, Nibbana, as made known by the Sugata [Buddha].

And the Buddha is described as being supremely at peace:

Serene and inspiring serene confidence, calming, his senses at peace, his mind at peace, having attained the utmost tranquility and poise.

In our lives we’re often seeking happiness in some way or another. And a common assumption is that happiness comes from having pleasurable experiences. Buddhism points out, though, that there’s so much change and instability in the world and in our own beings that we can never guarantee ourselves a constant stream of pleasurable experiences, and so we can never find true happiness that way.

True happiness — or rather peace — comes not from having pleasant experiences, but from changing our relationship with our experience, whether it’s pleasurable or unpleasurable. It’s when we can completely accept pleasure and pain without responding either with craving or aversion that we find ourselves at peace. So this insight changes everything. Most of our pleasure seeking, most of our pursuit of happiness, is actually causing us more dukkha, because we’re aiming to keep at bay unpleasant experiences and hold onto pleasant ones. And both of these aims are impossible, fruitless, and frustrating — dukkha, in short.

Peace and joy come not from the experiences we have, but from how we relate to those experiences. Our experiences are inherently unsatisfactory (another meaning of dukkha), and we need to stop chasing after them or resisting them.

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It’s only learning to accept impermanence, and developing the ability to bear with our experiences non-reactively, that will bring peace.

So we need to remind ourselves of this all the time, so that we can find peace. And we also need to bear in mind, as we’re interacting people or cultivating metta, karuna, mudita, or upekkha for others that they too are often trapped in cognitive distortions — seeking happiness but not knowing how to create it; trying to avoid suffering and yet creating suffering inadvertently. And in the upekkha bhavana we can look out into the world and be aware of beings striving, blindly, for happiness. And we can wish that beings (ourselves included) develop the clarity and wisdom to be able to create peace — genuine peace — the peace that comes from awakening.

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Going all the way… (Day 97)

Stone steps ascendingI’ve been talking about the “divine abiding” of upekkha as being not equanimity, as it’s usually translated, but something that’s much warmer and more compassionate and supportive.

Equanimity suggests standing back, but the word upekkha means “closely watching.” I see upekkha as an intimate identification with beings’ deepest needs, and our desire that they experience the peace of awakening.

Just as mudita is when we want beings to develop skillful qualities and the peace and joy that comes from those qualities, so upekkha is when we want beings to develop insight, and the peace and joy that comes from that insight.

Upekkha is what the Mahāyāna came to call mahā-karunā — great compassion — in contrast to the brahmavihara of compassion, which is a simpler desire to relieve beings of suffering.

Because upekkha means wishing that beings awaken, you might make an assumption that upekkha is something you can’t really get into until you’ve gained some insight or had some deep experience of deep peace ourselves, but I don’t think that that would be a helpful or correct assumption. We can want the peace and joy of awakening for ourselves and for others without actually having experienced it. In fact it’s inevitable that this is the case. We’re always seeking some peace that is not yet ours. We can’t, by definition, know what awakening is like until we’ve experienced it. We don’t even know what is going to bring insight about.

100 Days of LovingkindnessBut we can have a sense of the direction we want to head in. We can have a sense of what we want to move away from — craving, aversion, and the suffering they bring. We can have an emerging sense of liberation from suffering as we learn to let go, to notice our experience mindfully and non-reactively, and to develop greater compassion. This amounts to a sense of direction, with a destination that’s essentially unknown.

This is one of the odd things about practicing the Dharma; we don’t really know what the goal is. The Buddha certainly didn’t say a lot about what the experience of being awakened was like. He talked about it as being beyond the scope of words to describe, although he did repeatedly describe it as being blissful, joyful, and peaceful. So all we have to go on is hints, and a promise of some experience very different from our own.

Blind faith? Sometimes it might be, but essentially it’s confidence and trust (two words that in some ways translate “shraddha” better than “faith”) based on experience. If you’ve followed the guidance of the Buddha and found that meditating and living ethically have brought more of a sense of meaning, peace, and sometimes joy into your life, then you have some experiential basis for trusting that maybe this guy knew what he was talking about. And if he talked about a goal that’s the ultimate in peace and joy, however obliquely, then there’s some basis for trust — or “faith,” if you like.

And if we want to experience goal for ourselves (so to speak, since it’s not something that can be grasped or possessed), we can compassionately want others to experience that goal.

So we don’t have to have experience of the goal to be in a position to want it for others.

It’s not that we go all evangelistic and start pestering everyone we meet, asking them if they’ve “heard the word of the Buddha” and pressing little tracts into their hands. But we can learn to relate to others on the basis of what they can become, rather than on the basis of whatever constellation of habits and traits they happen to be right now. We can view others lovingly and compassionately, valuing their potential, and being an encouraging presence. This is the “close watching” of upekkha.

We don’t need to have experienced awakening to have upekkha, but one thing we do need is a desire for awakening. You can have lovingkindness for others — wishing for them to be happy — without personally feeling any connection with the goal of awakening, or enlightenment. You can have compassion for others — wishing for them to be free from suffering — without thinking about enlightenment at all. And similarly you can have mudita, and want others to become skillful and experience the peace and joy of a skillful life, without wanting to be enlightened. But I don’t think you can wish awakening for others unless you wish it for yourself.

And this is something that’s often strangely lacking in many Buddhists. Many of the practitioners I’ve met want to be better people. They want to be happier. They want to cause less suffering to others. But their ideals are very much rooted in puñña, or merit — becoming an incrementally better person by developing skillful qualities — rather than in pañña, or wisdom, which is a radical shift in the way we see ourselves. It’s quite common for Buddhists not to think about awakening, not to talk about awakening, and even not to think that awakening is a realistic possibility for them. In fact they might be quite clear that they think they’ll never have an insight experience.

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But awakening is the whole point of Dharma practice. And it can happen to anyone. It can happen anytime. I doubt if there’s a single person in the world who, in the moments before they had an insight experience, was thinking, “OK, I think enlightenment’s about to happen … wait … wait .. right, there it is!” Awakening always comes out of the blue. It’s always a surprise, or even a shock. And we should be open to the possibility of awakening happening to us. Not that we should expect anything to happen, but we should have the general aim of cultivating insight experiences. And we should be doing what it takes to awaken — not just living ethically and cultivating mindfulness and metta, but examining the impermanent, non-self, and unsatisfactory nature of our experience. We should be tilling the soil, planing seeds, and watering those seeds. You can’t make the plants grow through some act of will, but you can aim to grow a garden.

In fact, all this should increasingly become central to our lives. We should see ourselves as Buddhas in training. We should aim to go all the way to awakening. If we don’t have that aim, then how can we have that wish for others, and help them to free themselves from suffering? If we don’t ourselves have the desire to go all the way to awakening, how can we take others with us?

PS You can see all of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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The play of causes and conditions (Day 96)

100 Days of LovingkindnessWe adopted my daughter at four months old, and I found it absolutely fascinating to watch her mind evolve. What I noticed first was that happiness was her default emotion; it was only when hunger or pain arrived that she’d become upset. How many people can you say that for — that happiness is their baseline mental state and that they only deviate from that state temporarily? This reminded me of Buddhist teachings that tell us that happiness is fundamental to the mind, and that troubling mental states are disturbances to that inherent sense of well-being.

I watched my daughter exhibit wonder. She’d just sit there and move her hands and look at them and smile, and you could see that she was alive with curiosity and delight. Just the sight and feeling of her hands moving was wondrous to her.

But then things began to change.

She was happy because she had no craving or grasping. When she was small, you could remove something from her hands that she’d picked up, and she wouldn’t protest. She’d just move onto delighting in the next experience. But then craving and grasping started to arise in her mind, and with it arose her first real experiences of self-generated suffering. Because we’d take something from her that she wanted — something she saw as a fun toy but that we saw as a choking hazard — she’d suffer agonies of despair.

The hot on the heels of craving arose anger: by the time she was two, when she was deprived of something she wanted, she was likely to have a tantrum.

This was a bit of a shock to the system, having my sweet, happy daughter taken away from me and this demonic entity kicking and thrashing and screaming. It was all developmentally appropriate, but challenging!

One of the ways I found myself rising to this challenge was recognizing that what I was seeing was the play of causes and conditions. When she was frustrated and would try to strike me or spit at me, I started seeing her as an eternally-unfolding stream of causes and conditions.

She didn’t know why she was acting this way. She was experiencing new emotions (can you imagine what that’s like?) and having to learn to deal with them. She was struggling to come to terms with moving from complete dependance to relative independence, never knowing where the line was or what her limitations were, going through phases of development as she tried to make sense of the world around her and of herself.

Oddly, I found that I could face her tantrums not just with equanimity, but with love and compassion, when I let go of the assumption that she was a “person” and saw her more as a stream of causes and conditions.

It’s funny, isn’t it? It sounds dehumanizing to regard someone as not being a person. But actually it’s the opposite. When I see her as a “person” I start immediately thinking (even unconsciously, I think) in terms of her having a fixed nature that I have to mold into the shape I want. And that brings about judgments, because molding a living being isn’t easy. There’s “resistance,” and “uncooperativeness” and “bad behavior.” And it’s hard not to be angry when you’re faced with those things (even if they’re just judgments your own mind has imposed on reality).

But when I see my daughter as a stream of causes and conditions, I see her as an evolving being, and instantly I feel compassion for her, because I see her as a struggling and growing being. And my heart opens to her, because deep down we’re all struggling and growing beings. And perhaps somehow my heart knows that the best conditions in which to be a struggling and growing being are love and compassion from other struggling and growing beings.

If you benefit from the work we do, please consider supporting Wildmind. Click here to make a one-time or recurring donation.

If you benefit from the work we do, please consider supporting Wildmind. Click here to make a one-time or recurring donation.

The great teacher 8th century teacher Shantideva talked about how seeing beings in terms of causes and conditions could help us have more patience with them:

I am not angered at bile and the like even though they cause
great suffering. Why be angry at sentient beings, who are
also provoked to anger by conditions?

Just as sharp pain arises although one does not desire it, so
anger forcibly arises although one does not desire it.

A person does not intentionally become angry, thinking, “I
shall get angry,” nor does anger originate, thinking, “I shall
arise.”

All offenses and vices of various kinds arise
under the influence of conditions, and they
do not arise independently.

An assemblage of conditions does not have
the intention, “I shall produce,” nor does
that which is produced have the intention, “I
shall be produced.”

So this is simply an extension of the principles of anatta (non-self) that I’ve been discussing recently. At my best, I don’t indulge in “conceiving” of my daughter having a self. At my best I realize that her tantrums are not her, not hers, and that they are not her self.

I’m at my best when I relate to others not in terms of what I think they are, but in terms of what they can become. It’s not that I have a fixed sense of what they can be, but that I simply don’t assume that what I see is all that there is. When my daughter’s having a tantrum that’s just one particular manifestation of the causes and conditions that constitute her being at that particular time. Minutes later she may be sweet and loving. And who knows what she will become in the future?

Things go best between us when I accept her as an eternally-evolving and undefinable being, and my task as a parent is to be a compassionate presence that encourages the emergence of what is best in her.

So this again brings us to upekkha. Upekkha is not equanimity, but is the desire that beings experience the peace of awakening. It’s also the activity that helps beings to experience that peace. Recognizing that beings are not fixed, but are vortices of conditions arising and passing away, helps us to experience that peace ourselves, and to help them to move toward that peace themselves.

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This is not me; this is not mine, I am not this (Day 95)

dandelion seedOnce I was walking into town when I was hit by what felt like a crushing tidal wave of embarrassment. I’d just had an interview for a podcast that would be heard by tens of thousands of people. And I’d done the interview after about four hours of sleep, because both my wife and daughter had been ill and very restless all night long. So I’d done a pretty lousy interview. My replies were shallow and rather incoherent at times. And walking down Elm Street later that day, out of nowhere came this tsunami of shame, knowing that my incoherence would be broadcast to thousands.

Then an interesting thing happened. I was in the middle of writing my book on the Buddhist Six Element meditation at the time, and a phrase that’s important in that meditation practice — “This is not me; this is not mine, I am not this” — sprung spontaneously into my mind. This shame was not me, not mine. I was not my shame. I was not my performance. A conversation does not define me. I was not my incompetence; my incompetence was just an impermanent phenomenon temporarily manifesting in my being.

And the embarrassment vanished. Instantly. And never came back. Even now, thinking about that incident, I can remember feeling shame but can’t re-experience it.

(Oh, and luckily the interviewer called me back and asked if we could record the conversation again!)

This phrase, “This is not me; this is not mine, I am not this,” is an important tool in learning to recognize the truth of anatta, or not-self.

100 Days of LovingkindnessThe Buddha did not teach, incidentally, that there was no self. The word “anatta,” which is often translated as “no self” is invariably used in the Buddhist scriptures in the context of saying “This is not myself. That is not myself.” It’s never used, as far as I’m aware, to say “there is no self.” And in fact when the Buddha was asked flat out if he taught that there was no self he refused to answer, and he also said that there was no view of self that would not lead to suffering: including the view that there is no self. I do sometimes say there is “no self” but what I mean by that is that there is no self that exists as we think it exists: separate and permanent. That kind of self doesn’t exist.

The Buddha’s teaching of not-self was intended to free us from attachment to the view that there was anything that could be taken as the self, or that could define ourselves. Self-definitions are chains that limit and bind us. So…

Your body is not yourself.

Your emotions are not yourself.

Your thoughts are not yourself.

Your awareness is not yourself.

What’s left? Well, nothing. But that doesn’t mean there’s no self, or that there is something else you should take to be your self. Rather, the Buddha’s approach was for us to cease identifying anything as our selves so that we can simply stop obsessing about the whole issue! We come simply to live without reference to a self. We live spontaneously and effortlessly, just allowing life to happen. (There’s a lot of hard work and discipline needed to get to that point, by the way!)

So this is another way into experiencing the liberation of bodhi — that freedom from the burden of self that I wrote about yesterday. This is another way into experiencing the peace of awakening.

And upekkha — our current theme — is wishing for all beings this freedom and peace that comes from insight. We wish this for ourselves; and more than simply wish for these we actively cultivate insight so that they may manifest in our lives. And we wish them for others; but more than simply wish for them we live our lives in such a way that we help others to realize insight, peace, and freedom.

So this is what we wish in the upekkha bhavana practice:

  • May all beings let go deeply.
  • May all beings find awakening.
  • May all beings dwell in peace.

The exact words do not matter; but this is the spirit of upekkha. The upekkhaful mind is the midwife of enlightened qualities. The upekkhaful mind recognizes the innate potential for bodhi in all beings, and helps that potential to come to fruition. The upekkhaful mind compassionately does what it can to help others attain the profound freedom and peace of awakening.

PS You can see all of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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